First Wireless Phone Call Made From Inside Coal Mine - InformationWeek

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First Wireless Phone Call Made From Inside Coal Mine

Three technology companies have developed a communications system that will let miners call for help from a thousand feet inside a coal mine.

Three technology companies that have developed a communications system for miners say they have made the first wireless phone call from a thousand feet inside a coal mine.

Hannah Engineering, Rajant, and Sanmina-SCI say the jointly developed system was tested in mid-December in a former mine near Pittsburgh that's now used for research and testing by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Calls were made from inside the mine to Rajant's headquarters in Malvern, Pa., Sanmina's Huntsville, Ala., office, and to several locations in West Virginia.

"This is the first time a phone call has ever been made from inside a mine," says Peter Lenard, senior VP for Rajant. "We're on the cutting edge."

Wireless communication from within a mine is expected to greatly improve safety by giving miners a way to communicate with the outside world during a disaster. The difficulty of trapped miners to reach the outside was underscored early last year during the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia, when 13 miners were trapped for nearly two days following an explosion. Only one miner survived.

The Hannah-Rajant-Sanmina system, which is undergoing more tests and is expected to be commercially available in the second quarter, would provide voice communications, as well as the ability to track the whereabouts of each miner.

The new system gets around the inability of cellular networks to penetrate the earth through the use of Internet telephony, or VoIP. A network of portable wireless routers built by Rajant would be set up throughout the mine to move a call outside to Sanmina technology, which would convert the signal to analog and move it over the traditional phone lines. Voice communications over an IP network move in the form of data packets, which move from one router to another.

The network within the mine would involve enough routers to create many paths to the outside, Lenard says. "The routers would be configured to find the best way between two points. If one point is unavailable, then it could find an alternative path."

The ability to take calls in many directions is important because some routers could be destroyed in a disaster. In addition, Rajant has developed patent-pending technology that would make it possible to re-establish links between routers that have been broken by a cave-in.

Sanmina is building the VoIP phone, called MP1, that would be used with the system. The phones, which are specially made for use within mining operations, also would include homing technology for tracking each miner. Rajant has contributed its BreadCrumb wireless LAN technology, and Sanmina's Redi-Comm system is being used to convert digital calls to analog. Hannah Engineering is a consulting engineering firm that specializes in civil and mining applications.

The collaborative project was sparked by federal regulations that followed the Sago Mine disaster. The rules included in the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act require mining companies to install better wireless communications and tracking systems to boost miner safety.

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